With many film series, it is easy to say what your favorite is. Star Wars fans seem pretty passionate about “The Empire Strikes Back” and let’s face it, no one likes “Cars 2”. With directors, the same is not as obvious. When the film maker has such a unique style but also the talent to apply it to almost any genre, it gets to be more difficult. If asked, I would say my favorite Hitchcock films are “Vertigo“, “North By Northwest” and “Psycho“. As to which one I think is the best, well it depends on which one I saw last. Today, my favorite is the Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason thriller from 1959.
Since I am such a big fan of James Bond, it seems natural to love “North by Northwest” because it really feels like it set the groundwork for contemporary spy films. There is an intricate plot, but most of the mystery is background for a series of sequences that are amazingly staged or performed. The actors get to play with their characters and make them something unique because the dialogue is so arch. 007 could easily have spouted the lines spoken by either Cary Grant or Eva Marie Saint. Mason is a forerunner for Dr. No and a dozen other masterminds who trade quips with the protagonist and make plans that in the end go awry.
Two major Hitchcock themes are fully exploited by this film. There is a cool blonde with the aura of danger surrounding her and there is the innocent man, caught up in a story wrongfully but effectively. Mild maneuvered mama’s boy Roger Thornhill does not seem to be the type to be able to stand up to ruthless spies and killers but he turns out to be resourceful and charming enough to get halfway across the country to the climax of the film. His cleverness at escaping is demonstrated by his witty performance at a Chicago auction. The manner in which he thwarts the henchmen of the lead baddie is just the kind of thing that James Bond and Indiana Jones would specialize in later. Eva Marie Saint comes on like a locamotive which is appropriate given where she first meets Grant’s Thornhill. Eve Kendall is a mystery wrapped in a most appealing package and dropping hints as to what is inside in the sexiest way possible.
Eve Kendall: I’m a big girl.
Roger Thornhill: Yeah, and in all the right places, too.
Their exchanges while on the train to Chicago are worth the price of admission all on their own.
The two big set pieces of this movie are justifiably famous. The whole sequence with Grant out in the hinterlands of Iowa, waiting for a non-existent man to meet him in the middle of nowhere, is facilitating. From the time his bus drops him off to the moment the crop duster ends up as it does, there is basically only the sound of the fields and the infrequent traffic on the roads. Hitchcock doesn’t have to sweeten the suspense with music at this point. Everything build tension by developing slowly and quietly. It is a far cry from the manner of most modern films which overdo it ninety percent of the time. The spectacular chase across the heads and faces of Mt. Rushmore however, are perfectly framed by the amazing Bernard Hermann theme from the film. When silence is required, the music pulls back to allow the menacing face of Martin Landau to move closer to our heroes and really frighten us.
Everywhere in the movie, Hitchcock and his collaborator , writer Ernest Lehman, have created little moments of character that provide humor for the story. Roger Thornhill is a befuddled man, but he is also a creative advertising executive who can toss off a quip as easily as most jingles of the day. He has lines to his secretary, the thugs who kidnap him and his love interest, that would be memorable if they were in a pure comedy. Lehman and Hitchcock put those bon mots in his mouth at just the right time for effect but never in the way that some of the lines made famous by action stars of the 80s dropped like a hammer. Subtlety is a gift that the makers of this piece of entertainment provide us in regular doses.
I own this Blu ray and have watched it a number of times, but as usual with film, the experience of seeing it in a theater with an audience just as captivated as you are is intangibly better. There is an extensive selection of films being provided by TCM and Fathom for the next few months. Maybe if you are lucky, you will find something as wonderful as this movie to fill your eyes and brain with.